It would be easy to dismiss Cherron Phillips, the “sovereign citizen” on trial for harassing federal judges and prosecutors with $100 billion liens, as just another kook.
Indeed, I have little doubt she has issues.
But what may surprise you is that the sovereign citizen movement that spawned her alleged tactics is believed to have attracted tens of thousands of adherents in the U.S. in recent years — all of them sharing a common belief that the government has no authority over them.
And the movement, regarded by the FBI as a top domestic terrorism threat, is believed to still be gaining steam.
That’s a lot of kooks.
Obviously, there are many more people in this country who don’t always abide by the law, but this is different.
Sovereign citizens don’t think the laws apply to them and that government officials — including the police and the courts — have no jurisdiction over their lives, whether that’s paying taxes or requiring a driver’s license.
Sovereign citizens have developed elaborate conspiracy theories to rationalize their anti-government ideology, usually grounded in some semi-truth that serves as a reminder that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
I ran across some “sovereign citizens” in the late 1970s working as a reporter in Iowa.
They were members of the Posse Comitatus, an extremist group generally regarded as the forerunner of the movement and where many of its philosophies were developed.
Their particular thing at the time was not paying federal income taxes.
As I recall, they had some elaborate theory about how the income tax was illegitimate, as if they had some legal insight that transcended all the Supreme Court findings to the contrary. An Iowa jury did not share their view.
According to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center, many of the founders and pioneers of the sovereign citizen movement were white supremacists, and the movement remains overwhelmingly white.
That makes it all the more ironic that the movement has seen some of its most significant growth in recent years among African-Americans, many of whom describe themselves as “Moors” or “Moorish.”
“In Chicago, the majority of sovereign citizens are African-American, and the majority of those are Moorish,” explained Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League.
The Moorish sub-movement adheres to the usual sovereign citizen gobbledygook along with some Afro-centric spin, “such as the notion that a 1787 treaty between the U.S. and Morocco gives ‘Moors’ in the U.S. special privileges and immunities,” says an ADL report.
I don’t know if Phillips, the African-American defendant on trial who sometimes calls herself River Bey, considers herself a Moor.
To give you an idea how far out there she is, when the judge originally asked her how she intended to plea, meaning guilty or not guilty, Phillips responded: “I accept for value in returning for value for settlement in closure of this accounting.”
But she is not offering an insanity defense.
Notably, Phillips asked for a recess to use her cell phone before offering this nonsensical plea, which probably suggests somebody was advising her.
That would be typical of the sovereign citizen movement, which normally does not form organized groups that would draw attention but relies instead on gurus or teachers who hold seminars to pass along their theories and tactics.
Of course, like everything else these days, they also operate over the Internet, where individuals such as Phillips can easily download their crackpot legal filings.
Some individuals may adopt the sovereign citizen philosophy as a dodge to justify illegal activity, which is why many of its followers are recruited in jails and prisons. But others truly believe this stuff, which can make things dangerous when law enforcement comes calling.
If you think this is just a problem for government officials, though, guess again. Anyone who is the target of a grudge can find themselves hit with these nuisance liens — one of the sovereign citizen tactics that have come to be called “paper terrorism.”
On Tuesday, a Cook County administrative law judge slapped a Chicago man with a $5,000 fine and agreed to a request by the Recorder of Deeds to lift a $648,000 lien the man had placed on the operator of a non-profit organization. The man had demanded payment in “U.S. silver dollar coins”— another tell-tale sign of sovereign citizens who don’t believe in the U.S. monetary system.
Kooks come and go, but kooky ideologies have a way of surviving.